I’m not a great fan of surprises, generally. Secret birthday parties, unannounced guests and computer viruses are not my cup of tea. However, I love surprises in the theatre, whether it’s seeing a play you thought you knew inside out being illuminated in an unexpected way, or a novel use of technology for a dynamic effect, or a piece of unusual casting.
In fact, I particularly love it when a casting director insists you audition an actor, despite their initial and superficial lack of suitability for a role. Whether we like it or not, it can be so unconsciously tempting to think about certain actors in the context of their extant body of work. Despite complaining about the boxing-in of actors and their talent, it’s such an easy trap to fall into. Hence, good casting directors are worth their weight in gold.
Good casting directors see a variety of work – and a lot of it. They have an uncanny ability to spot talent early on in actors’ lives – and remember that performance in that obscure play at that drama school. They can immerse themselves in different roles so, when reading a scene in an audition, they can ensure the auditionee can give it their best shot. They care about representation and are ready to challenge directors’ preconceived ideas, which can sometimes be based on traditional or spurious rationales.
When an actor hasn’t quite succeeded to convey every aspect of a scene or a character in an audition room, the good casting directors can reassure them that it’s a positive thing that actors have a journey to go on during rehearsals – that if there was nothing to aim towards, somehow the achievement of the end results would be less.
A good casting director can flex their imagination to place actors in unusual casting brackets and encourage directors to consider actors in different lights.
It’s this last skill that can often bring about such joyful surprises. Nothing gives me more delight than to see an actor whose work I thought I knew well come to an audition and prove they have even more colours to their palate than I had realised. There can be great surprises for audiences too in casting “against type”. Within reason, of course – and the good casting directors have a strong sense of what is plausible versus the incredulous or casting that is merely a stunt.
During the current season of prize-giving, it’s always fascinating to see which actors
have surprised us with their performances – and then take a moment to celebrate the
work of the casting directors who placed them there.
Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/daniel-evans